Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Making The Day Wednesday: Making A Background Out Of No Background

Good Morning Everybody,

It was a long flight back home but we landed safe and sound, checked in with the team, and are getting ready to head north to spend a Thanksgiving Wednesday with LaDawn's family later this afternoon. Yep, we made it back home and are off and running again.

On the flight back I had chance  to put today's post together - I think you are going to like it.  It's another post on lighting and covers one more instance of how to take a difficult shooting situation and still come up with great images for the client.  That said, let's get right to today's post.

Making  A Background Out Of No Background

Yesterday I suggested you re-read my post entitled, "Lighting Challenge Wednesday" [link]. It’s the perfect lead in for today’s post because we had a similar set of challenges to deal with.

After I pulled off the portrait series back at the hotel using the only three trees in Northern Kentucky left with leaves serving as my background for the shot as described in the link above - it was off to the park to see if we could make “lightning strike twice” and do it again in our new location. 

Hey, no problem – it’s always about using the long lenses, wide apertures, and dropping the exposure of the ambient light. That sentence pretty much summarizes how I was planning to handle the lack of a decent background situation.  As a matter of fact, it is my “modus operandi” anytime I find myself in that kind of situation.  Let me walk through the process.

First, let’s check out the situation.  Look at our first shot at a less than desirable location.  Not much going on scenery-wise on this early November day.  Most of the leaves had dropped to the ground and the sun was pretty bright and high in the sky and no visible clouds.

0002-lake Post-1918-NV_1918-DZ_IMG_3164

I thought I could pull off the same thing I had accomplished at the hotel just a few moments earlier. The problem this time around was that alignment of the trees with the direction of the sun was not working in my favor.

I could find a few trees that would work for the background – they are to the right of the scene you see here. Notice the tree to the far right in the above image – it would have worked perfectly had the sun been coming from a direction behind that tree seen on the far right.

Since it was coming from the left of that tree we see here, this sun would have created very unflattering split lighting on the wedding party. Couple that with many problem shadows that would have further complicated the shooting of the image and we have a receipt for a lighting disaster.

DAZNOTE:  It was amazing to me in Hawaii as we watched many photographers shoot their images with the clients in direct sunlight with no regard to direction of light and the harsh shadows associated with that direct light. 

In fact, one photog? was heard to saying to his clients, during his family portrait shoot,  that he had to wait for the sun to come out from behind the clouds before he could shoot the shot - AHHHH!

Hey, don’t get me wrong here – I’m not picking on any photogs in particular, especially Hawaii, but folks, light is light and we’ve got to learn to use it right!

OK, so what was I going to do at the park.  I continued to survey the area.  There were a few trees that offered me an ever so tiny piece of shade in which to position my subjects.  Shade, any amount of shade, is your friend in these challenging lighting situations.  If you can find any small spot of shade in which to position the couple, keeping the harsh sun off their faces and wedding gown, the battle is mostly won.

Check out the next shot.  Notice the small spots of shade cast by a few of the trees.  I might be on to something here.  Notice too the lake in the background to the right.

0001-lake Post-1916-NV_1916-DZ_IMG_3162I had an idea.  If I could position the bride in one of the “shadow spots” and use the lake as the background, I might be able to pull off the shot.  I knew that a long lens was going to be my “weapon of choice” for this shot.  I needed to compress the background and that’s the job of the long focal length lenses.

I mounted my Canon 70-300mm IS DO lens onto my Canon 5D Mark II and started to preview some locations.  I found one I liked.  With the long lens compressing the lake and its surrounds I thought I could come up with a pretty cool background.  The fact that the water surface was also reflecting the blue tones of the sky sure didn’t hurt either.

Next challenge – getting the direction of light on the subject.  It was pretty bright so I knew I needed to use a low ISO for the shot – I chose ISO 100. At this ISO, I was able to get by with F5.0, not bad. That should blur the background enough to give me ample separation of the background from the subject.

What about the shutter speed – the camera was reading F5.0 at 1/125 second for the correct exposure of the ambient light.  But, I wanted the light from my off-camera flash to be the “key light” on the scene with the ambient acting as my fill.  That meant that I needed the ambient to be underexposed by 1 1/2 stop.

The ambient light, in this flash situation, can only be controlled by the shutter speed. So, I needed to use a faster shutter speed for this shot.  No problem, I chose 1/320 second 1 1/2 stops faster than 1/125 second.  That should be enough to underexpose the ambient light as planned. 

You’re thinking, “Ziser, you’re crazy.  Your camera only syncs to 1/200 second.”  You’re right, so I just choose to “cheat the sync” and shoot at the higher shutter speed than the camera’s normal sync speed.  I just needed to remember to keep the subject in the “flash sync” part of the viewfinder – the top 2/3’s – which I did and obtained a nice result. 

Check out the next image.  Notice that the underexposed ambient light easily showed the effect of the off-camera flash. It was the off-camera flash that created the nice highlights next to the shadows giving me the dimensional lighting I was looking for and also repeated the effect of the dimensional lighting on the background created by the sun.

0005-lake Post-0403-DZ_IMG_8819So that was it.  I took several images of the bride and the bride and groom and got a pretty nice series of images for them.


I think, that too many times photogs just give up the search for good locations and good lighting.  That’s too bad. Those who take the time to make the effort are going to be rewarded for their efforts.

That’s still going to be the BIG differentiator between the shooter making “beer money” on his/her shoot versus the photographer making “real money” on his/her shoot and giving the client images that are special, unique, and creatively different from the rest of the crowd.

Sorry, got into a little “soap box” action there, but it’s still true. Why compromise your talent, your style, and your finished product just because it’s easier to just get by on the shoot?

Push it and make it something special, not just for the client, but for you too.  It takes each of us pushing a little harder to raise the bar even higher on our own wedding photography an especially in the field of photography as a whole.  Keep pushing to make it better.  We owe it not just to our own clients but to all brides seeking something different and special in their photography. 

Hey gang, that’s it for me today. We’ve got some running we have to do and then we head off to a Thanksgiving celebration with LaDawn’s family later this afternoon.  If you’ve got a minute, check back tomorrow for my Thanksgiving thoughts on the holiday.

 I hope to see you then, –David.


  1. AM, November 25, 2009

    I wholeheartedly agree with the epilogue, each shoot should be special, with the photographer thinking of all the many possibilities, not only for the client or bride, but also for their own portfolio. You just never know when you are going to get that one signature image, that you will use, or even be remembered by.

  2. It's tutorials such as these that make me check up on digitalprotalk 3x per day. Thanks for the welath of information that you do provide. You truly are a never-ending source of wisdom and knowledge.

  3. Double ditto. I've always heard that the luckiest people just happen to be the hardest working ones.

  4. Great post, David. I like both the technical aspect and the epilogue. Keep it going!

  5. You and Joe McNally were the main reasons why I subscribed to Kelby Training. Yours and STrobists are regular visits for me. Please know that even when you don't get many comments, that there are those of us who have nothing but *appreciation* for your experience and for your generous, thoughtful, posts.

    Thanks for all that you do!


  6. Your soap box moments are great. As serious photographers we need to be looking and working to make our work standout.

  7. Mr. Ziser you are genius on the uses of light. What a great result from circumstances in which many photographers would have struggled in and failed spectacularly.

    I can't wait to read your forthcoming book!